Saturday, June 25, 2005


Searching for Solace

Searching for Solace- Biography of Yusuf Ali the translator of the Quran;

What a surprise!….Yusuf Ali’s English translation of the Qur’an is arguable the most widely used and critically acclaimed translation among several available in Engish… I’ve been using this translation to understand the Qur’an since so many years ago from my university days (apart from the other well known “The Glorious Qur’an”, a translation by an English convert Marmaduke Pikhtall ..)….and I finally got a hold of a biography of him (Yusuf Ali) written by MA Sharif …an unknown “system analyst” from UK. My copy was published in Malaysia and annoyingly there is no introduction about this author….

If you’re one of those that have been using this translation you may find that you’ll have another view of the transalation after reading this biography……I’ve always assumed that Yusuf Ali must be an ulama and an expert on Islam…based on his very knowledgeable footnotes and commentaries…but this biography showed that he was no such thing least not in the classical sense of what we generally mean by the term “ulama”….what is very unexpected for me too is to find out that he was such an anglophile that he was knowingly or otherwise used by the British as an apologist for the “Empire” and went all over the world preaching the virtues of the British Colonial master!!…and while the like of Muhammad Iqbal and Ali Jinnah etc were busy supporting the formation of Pakistan and struggled for Indian Independence from the British , Yusuf Ali stoically struggled in the opposite direction by preaching how good the Empire is to the Indians and the need for the Empire to be kept intact!…one can’t help the feeling that Yusuf Ali who was the contemporary of these great men could have done a lot more for Islam since he was obviously equally gifted and were involved with these men at around the same time…but for his blind subservience and inordinate love for things British…..

Iit might not be surprising since he was born in India in the late 19th century (1870s) from a well to do family who sent him to study in England since young….his early years reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Salman Rushdie…the bastard who wrote an admittedly well-written novel but insulting book “The Satanic Verses”….but unlike Rushdie who gobbled ham in Cambridge in his formative years to prove that he was no longer attached to Islam …Yusuf Ali did no such thing… but he did another, which is equally questionable in the eyes of practicing muslims….in his twenties he married an English woman in a church and solemnized under Christian rites!! and went on to have 3 sons from this marriage before a divorce….and, as an encore in later years he went on to marry another English lady (no mention if this was also in a church and if this lady converted to Islam)….

The author of this biography gave very good and detailed info about the public life of A Yusuf Ali from his educational background (Cambridge) to his various careers (lawyer, writer, headmaster of an Islamic college in Delhi etc ) and his works as a prominent Indian civil servant and for the British Empire.

Sadly the author failed miserably when it comes to Yusuf Ali’s private life and struggle with his demons…. the details of his personal life and sad end was very disappointing… almost a complete blank…but with hints and gleams of very turbulent and sad private life ….why did his sons turned against him? Why did he disown his sons from his first marriage? Were they brought up as muslims? Who were they? What happened to the thousands of his book collection? what kind of books he collected? how is it that a man who had done such a fine translation of the Quran in his fifties could spiral to such a bad end within two decades?…it came about that in his last decade his personal life came to a very sad end , wondering around in London like a bag lady and died alone in a state of dementia ….none of this is satisfactorily explained.….

And another thing…. The author never explained how well and where Yusuf Ali learned Arabic…at one point Yusuf Ali was giving a running commentary of the Qu’ran in his college…a reciter would recite a passage followed by Yusuf Ali giving a commentary of that passage … at one stage in a middle of a commentary he suddenly realized that he gave a commentary to a different passage than the one recited!… he became so annoyed that he just came down off the stage and just walk out….

But…. All the same he has done such a great service by giving us a fine translation of the Qur'an. My heart felt heavy after reading this book… and it’s always a mystery to me how God sometimes apportioned fortunes and misfortunes to men who are angels and others who are dogs in such strange and seemingly unfair ways….

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